< Open and accountable local government

This Part explains how the public can access all meetings (other than those of a council’s executive) of a council or other local government body, other than parish and town councils. These meetings include those of a body’s committees, sub-committees and any joint committees involving two or more local government bodies. It also explains how to access the records of certain non-executive decisions taken by the officers of local government bodies, other than parish and town councils.

Attending the meetings

How will I know about a forthcoming meeting of my council or local government body which will be open to the public?

Your council or local government body must give a notice of the meeting at least 5 clear days before a public meeting is held. The details of the meeting, such as the time and place, must be published at your council or local government body’s offices. The notice may also be published on the body’s website where practicable. You can also inspect the agenda and any background papers at least 5 clear days before the meeting.

Where an item is added to the agenda within 5 days before the meeting is scheduled to take place, a revised agenda and background papers must be published as soon as the item is added to the agenda.

An item that is not on the agenda can only be considered in special circumstances if the chairman is of the opinion that the item should be considered at the meeting as a matter of urgency. Any such special circumstances should be specified in the minutes.

How can I obtain a copy of the agenda and other relevant papers for a public meeting?

If you are representing a newspaper, your council or local government body must provide you with a copy of the agenda and any background upon payment of postage and/or copying charge. Councils and local government bodies are encouraged to provide a similar service to other members of the public upon request and payment of postage and/or copying charge.

In some circumstances, the whole or part of a report may not be available for public inspection if it contains either confidential or exempt information. In this case, the report should bear the phrase ‘not for publication’ and state that it contains confidential information or set out the description of the exempt information.

There are also additional legal rights to access information, outlined in Part 5 of this Guide.

Can a meeting be held in private?

The rules require a meeting of a council or local government body to be closed to the public in two circumstances:

  • If the presence of the public is likely to result in the council or local government body breaching a legal obligation to third parties about the keeping of confidential information; and
  • if the council or local government body decides (by passing a resolution of its members) because exempt information would otherwise be likely to be disclosed. It is open to the council or local government body if it chooses to consider in public matters involving exempt information. There is no over-riding legal requirement compelling the body to discuss exempt information in a private meeting.

The rules do not prevent the chairman from excluding any member of the public in order to maintain orderly conduct or prevent genuine misbehaviour at a meeting.

What is confidential information?

Confidential information means:

  • information provided to the council or local government body by a Government department on terms which forbid the disclosure of the information to the public; and
  • information which is prohibited from being disclosed by any enactment or by a court order.
What is exempt information?

The descriptions of exempt information are set out in Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972. The descriptions are listed in annex B of this Guide.

Can I be asked to leave a public meeting?

Yes. As a member of the public you can be asked to leave a meeting so that the council or local government body, its committees or sub-committees can discuss matters in private, but only in the limited circumstances that are already explained. The rules do not prevent the chairman from excluding any member of the public in order to maintain orderly conduct or prevent genuine disruption at a meeting.

How will I know about a private meeting of my council or local government body?

The rules do not require your council or local government body to notify the public if a meeting will be held in private. However, where part of a public meeting will be held in private, it should be explained when the public is notified of the meeting.

Can I attend a pre-briefing meeting with local authority officers?

No. The rules do not apply to political groups’ meetings or to informal briefing meetings for councillors.


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Recording of decisions of public meetings

If I am not at the meeting, how will I know of any decisions made?

The fact that you are unable to attend a public meeting of your council or local government body, its committees or sub-committees does not mean you cannot find out about the decisions made there. The national rules require the council or local government body to make the following documents available for inspection after a public meeting:

  • a copy of the minutes;
  • a summary of the proceedings, where applicable;
  • a copy of the agenda;
  • a copy of any report for the meeting as relates to any item during which the meeting was open to the public; and
  • a copy of a list of the background papers for any report for the meeting.

You can then inspect the records and any reports considered at the meeting at your council or local government body’s offices and on the council or local government body’s website if it has one. All of these documents can be inspected for six years, apart from background papers which can be inspected for four years beginning from the date of the meeting.


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Decisions by officers

Can an officer take decisions on matters that are the council or local government body’s responsibility?

Yes, where the council or local government body’s rulesxvi allow this.

How will I know about decisions made by officers?

The new national rules require the recording of certain decisionsxvii taken by officers acting under powers delegated to them by a council or local government body, its committees or sub-committees or a joint committee. The written record must be available for inspection at the council or local government body’s offices and on the website if it has onexviii, as soon as reasonably practicable, and should include:

  • The decision taken and the date the decision was taken;
  • the reason/s for the decision;
  • any alternative options considered and rejected; and
  • any other background documents.

Where a decision is taken under a specific express authorisation, the names of any member of the council or local government body who has declared a conflict of interest must be recorded.

The relevant council or local government body must retain and make the written record of their officers’ decisions available for inspection for six years beginning from the date of the meeting. The background papers should also be available for inspection for four years beginning from the date of the meeting. These may be kept in electronic format.

Can I see all decisions made by my council or local government body’s officers?

No. The requirement to record applies to all decisions taken by officers whilst acting under a specific express authorisation and to only three categories of decision taken whilst acting under a general authorisation. These categories cover decisions to “grant a permission or licence”; that “affect the rights of an individual” (i.e. to change an individual’s legal rights)xix; or to “award a contract or incur expenditure which, in either case, materially affectsxx that relevant local government body’s financial position”.

Officers take many administrative and operational decisions about how they go about their day to day work within the council’s or local body’s rules. These decisions will not need to be recorded.

You will not be able to inspect some recorded decisions if the whole or part of the records contains confidential or exempt information.

Examples of decisions that should be recorded could include:

  • Decisions about awarding contracts above specified individual or total values (the values will vary according to the relevant council or local government body);
  • a decision to carry out major road works;
  • determination of licencing applications, building control decisions and notices; and
  • decisions to give listed building consents.

Where decisions are already required to be published by other legislation, they do not need to be recorded again provided the record published includes the date the decision was taken and the reasons for the decision.

Decisions that do not need to be recorded might include the following examples:

  • Routine administrative and organisational decisions such as giving permission to a local society to use the authority’s premises;
  • decisions on operational matters such as day to day variations in services;
  • decisions to give business relief to individual traders;
  • decisions to review the benefit claims of an individual applicant; and
  • decisions taken in response to requests under the Data Protection Act 1998 or the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

These are a few selected examples and not an exhaustive list. It is for the council or local government body to decide what information should be recorded on the basis of the national rules.

Can I ask for a copy of any records of decisions taken by an officer of my council or local government body?

Yes. You can ask for a copy of any documents relating to decisions taken by an officer acting under specific or general delegated powers once you have paid for the postage, copying or any other necessary charge for transmission which will be determined by your council or local government body.

There are also additional legal rights to access information, outlined in Part 5 of this Guide.

What happens if documents relating to decisions are not made public?

It is a criminal offence if, without reasonable excuse, a person with custody of a documentxxi (which is required by the national rules to be made available to the public), refuses to supply the whole or part of the document, or intentionally obstructs any other person/s from disclosing such a document.

If a person is found guilty of such a criminal offence, he/she may be fined up to £200xxii.


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